Even if you’ve never heard of Tim Burton, you’ve likely seen one of his movies before. The highly acclaimed director, producer, and animator has been the recipient of numerous awards including a 1990 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation for his 1990 film Edward Scissorhands and a 2012 win for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for his 2012 Frankenweenie, the story of a dog that’s brought back to life by its grieving owner.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Burton repeatedly describes himself as an outcast, a young boy living in an eccentric limbo outside what is perceived as normal. When asked about whether he gets personally affected by the criticism his work received, especially in his first few years in the film industry, the director paused to explain that he’s pretty much used to it. That said, you get a real sense that it didn’t come easy. There’s something intensely personal in his films that makes them so charming, giving them the power to rake in the value of their production costs several times over despite his own admission that he can be a bit fringe.
It’s the reason Disney initially refused to release the original live-action for Frankenweenie (1984). The film was just too far out there, too dark for the public to see. Despite the grim aesthetics of Burton’s movies, Tim Burton’s characters manage to stay relatable and human – even when they aren’t human.
The Eccentric Genius of Tim Burton
Making cookie-cutter films would’ve been a lucrative career for Tim Burton. The young animator graduated from the California Institute of Arts, a university credited with producing some of the best talents that the animation industry has to offer such as The Incredibles‘ Brad Bird and The Prince of Egypt‘s Brenda Chapman. Given his background and talent, it was unsurprising that Disney recruited him as an animator in 1981.
But Burton wasn’t interested in making bland films, saying rather humbly that he “wasn’t good at drawing in the Disney style.” Just take a look at Tim Burton’s characters and you’ll see how un-Disney his designs are. He has a penchant for making the grotesque and terrifying into something endearing like the soft-spoken Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). He was still recognized for his talent, however, and was given a small budget by Disney execs to create Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984).
Frankenweenie (1984) followed the quiet suburban life of a boy named Victor Frankenstein whose pet dog Sparky dies in a freak car accident. The grieving boy decides to use the power of science (and lightning) to bring his beloved pet back to life. It’s a similar concept to the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley but the choice of subject wasn’t so much a homage as it was a reliving of childhood memories.
Like the socially awkward Victor and his Sparky, the then 3-year-old Burton met his beloved Pepe whom he describes as “like your first love”.
Pepe often suffered from canine distemper, the threat of his illness hanging over the two, threatening to cut their time together short. Pepe eventually died when Burton was 10 years old. As a means of coping, the young horror enthusiast watched films with resurrection themes, notably the adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“It wasn’t like I really wanted to bring (Pepe) back to life,” he clarified. Burton simply related to the grief of characters who wanted to bring their dead loved ones back to life. As a boy, he internalized this, revealing the resonance between him and the undead in several films that feature dead dogs.
Aside from Sparky, there’s Vincent‘s Abercrombie, Zero from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Scraps from The Corpse Bride (2005) who are all part of the tradition of dead dogs serving as characters of Tim Burton films.
When The Black Cauldron flopped though, Disney decided it was time to say goodbye to Burton. Though the separation wasn’t permanent, seeing as Burton worked on Dumbo (2019) decades after the fact, it gave him the freedom to work on other projects that yielded these ten Tim Burton characters that have captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences worldwide.
Tim Burton Characters and the Gothic Grotesque
10. Emily (The Corpse Bride, 2005)
Released in 2005, The Corpse Bride is one of Burton’s most recognizable films. Emily, a Tim Burton character that looks something of a gothic bride version of Dave Cameron’s Na’vi people, is the titular corpse bride who is unable to be laid to rest because of a vow she made. You’d think it’s a wedding vow but no. Emily promised that she’d find her true love after her former fiancé, the scheming Barkis Bittern, stabbed her to death in a bid to steal her wealth.
Though the film itself was released in 2005, the idea for The Corpse Bride (2005) had been around since 1996 in the form of a concept sculpture. Since the film was intended to be stop-motion animation, Burton brought in Graham G. Maiden, a Puppet Fabrication Supervisor at Three Mills.
Maiden admits it was hard to bring Tim Burton’s character sketches to life because of the dramatic angles and wiry figures they tended to have – all features that didn’t translate well to puppets that had to be able to balance themselves. Emily took the cake for being the hardest to animate since the full skirts, yes, multiple, of her wedding gown had to be individually wired and weighted. Once the final product was released, it was clear that every individually made skirt was worth it.
“It’s beautiful and scary at the same time.” Maiden said in an interview with Animation Art Conservation, “That is a bizarre thing because you’d imagine a rotting woman to be repulsive, but it’s not.”
9. Edgar (Frankenweenie, 2012) and the Penguin (Batman Returns, 1992)
Edgar E. Gore serves as the antagonist in the 2012 animated version of Frankenweenie. His design features typical monstrous hunchback traits popular in early horror films. Unlike the grotesque yet beautiful Emily, this addition to the roster of Tim Burton characters is made to be outright disgusting. Edgar has shiny yarn hair that looks greasy whenever the light hits it and his gapped teeth, purposely stained to look as if they had plaque, don’t do him any favors. Adding to his deformed back are a set of spindly fingers and a stumpy figure that makes him look like a demonic egg.
It’s a look and vibe that he shares with another of Tim Burton’s more horrific characters, the Penguin from Batman Returns (1992). The Penguin was made years prior to the release of the animated Frankenweenie (2012), making it a predecessor for the Satanic Humpty Dumpty concept.
Writer and screenwriter Diane Doniol-Valcroze shared this tweet of early concept design art for both the Penguin and Catwoman. Burton went for a darker tone in his version of the Batman story, fighting to make the sets darker and giving the characters an edgier appearance. Tim Burton’s rendition of the Penguin was a true circus freak with a dramatically pointed nose, penguin-shaped body, and webbed hands. While Danny DeVito’s performance received praise, the way Tim Burton characterized the Penguin didn’t.
Regardless of how the Tim Burton version of the character was received, the Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot of Batman Returns inspired later renditions to stick to the long-nosed, slimy feeling version of the Penguin. Batman: The Animated Series features a slightly cleaned-up Penguin while Robin Lord Taylor delivers a heart-rending and charming, yet still ugly, version in Gotham.
8. Catwoman (Batman Returns, 1992)
Tim Burton characters never fail to be iconic and the same goes for the director’s version of Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman. Selina starts out as a frumpy secretary working for Max Shreck, a corrupt businessman willing to ruin Gotham citizens’ access to electricity. After discovering the plot, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina promises not to tell the public but Shreck pushes her out of her apartment window, sending her to what was supposed to be her death.
Selina’s kindness to the stray cats of the area is rewarded as the cats gathered around her body, perhaps lending her one of their nine lives, to bring her back from the dead. It’s this Frankenstein-ian aspect of the Catwoman that Tim Burton emphasizes in his concept art for her.
Other non-Burton designs for the Catwoman tend to emphasize her sex appeal and feminine allure but Burton chose to incorporate staple-like stitches in the Catwoman’s shiny latex suit, a homage to the stitches we normally see on Frankenstein’s monster. This visual association with death makes Burton’s Catwoman suit look less of a BDSM suit, while nonetheless sexy, and more of a tightly fitted body bag.
7. Victor Van Dort (The Corpse Bride, 2005)
We can’t bring up Emily without talking about another Tim Burton character, Victor Van Dort, the not-so-skeletal groom who unwittingly engages himself to the undead Emily. How exactly did the unfortunate Victor end up marrying Emily? He thought it was a good idea to practice his wedding vows in a dark wood, next to a skeletal hand on which he slipped a ring.
Victor Van Dort’s design is exactly what you’d think of when picturing a late 19th-century gentleman. He wears a black, if a bit dusty, suit with a necktie tied around a heavily starched collar.
His outfit looks deceptively simple compared to the more outlandish Tim Burton characters we see in the director’s other films. But his suit had to be sculpted in a laborious three-step molding process. The team created a ‘core’ that would stand in for the general shape of an un-posed figure before adding a mold. It’s this mold that was then covered with fabric to create what Graham Maiden calls the “graphic quality” of Tim Burton’s designs.
Victor’s attire is admittedly typical of the period that The Corpse Bride (2005) was set in but horror fans familiar with both Tim Burton and Edgar Allan Poe might notice some similarities between the famous writer and Emily’s unwilling groom. The fictional Victor and Poe both share sunken, gloomy eyes and a washed-out complexion. Plus, the gothic horror poet was known for work that involved dead lovers, the most famous of which is Lenore from The Raven.
Is this all conjecture? Possibly. But Tim Burton has made no secret of his familiarity with the author and his work. His early film Vincent (1982) was influenced by the macabre atmosphere of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.
6. Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005)
Can anyone who makes a version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ever win? When Tim Burton’s version of the movie released, Gene Wilder, the Willy Wonka of the 1971 version of the movie, had this to say about it:
“I think it’s an insult – Warner Brothers’ insult, I think,” Wilder admitted in a 2013 interview, “Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director [Burton]. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.”
The stuff he did had something to do with Burton’s grimmer take on the Roald Dahl novel. For one, Burton made a point about how the Oompa Loompas have practically been tricked into slavery and that Willy Wonka has been putting kids in danger at his factory. But the biggest gripe Wilder has is with the Tim Burton character version of Willy Wonka.
Burton’s Wonka, played by Johnny Depp, is an eerie version of the charming, sometimes sarcastic, Willy Wonka that Gene Wilder brought to life on the screen. He has a paler complexion, a weird way of speaking, and a deep-seated neurosis about his father, a dentist who hated candy.
Though markedly more disturbing, Tim Burton’s characterization of Willy Wonka gave the character a paradoxically relatable touch. It turns out that daddy issues are relatable, leading to the audience divide of pro-Wilder and pro-Depp Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fans.
In retrospect, it’s amusing how much Gene Wilder hates Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, seeing as his casting and portrayal in the role of Willy Wonka is one of the key reasons why author Roald Dahl hated the 1971 adaption of his book. His friend and biographer, Donald Sturrock wrote in Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl that Dahl found Wilder too light and cheery to be Willy Wonka. Knowing this, he probably would have liked Tim Burton’s creepier Wonka more.
5. Beetlejuice (Beetlejuice, 1988)
Tim Burton characters are in a class of their own but among the most visually striking is the titular Beetlejuice of Beetlejuice (1988).
Right off the bat, Beetlejuice, whose name is actually Betelgeuse, was conceptualized with his iconic frizzy hair and striped outfit. It’s a very whimsical look, a signature of Tim Burton’s work, while staying grim given that the striped outfit looks like old-timey prison or asylum uniforms.
Beetlejuice (1988) was Tim Burton’s second full-length feature film and the director and its author were a match made in heaven. Inspired by the campy ghost films of the mid-80s and his annoying neighbors, Michael McDowell came up with the idea of a reverse haunting. Instead of ghosts disturbing people, it was people who would disturb the ghosts of McDowell’s story. Unable to scare off the awful living themselves, Barbara and Adam Maitland enlist the help of the spookier Beetlejuice.
Scary he certainly was. The Tim Burton character is well known for this scene where the couple asks him if he can be scary.
4. Jack Skellington (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)
Here’s another one of the memorable Tim Burton characters that’s sure to dig up good memories. The delightfully spooky Jack Skellington acts as the Halloween version of Christmas’s Santa Claus. Though he could easily be a Coraline villain, Jack Skellington is surprisingly soft-spoken, fun-loving, and, if you’ve seen his scenes with Sally, something of a romantic.
His love for innocent good fun, despite his scary appearance, and ownership of a dead ghost dog is nothing short of Burton-esque.
Tim Burton’s character design for Jack Skellington often shows the spirit of Halloween falling apart. It could easily be jump scare material but Burton plays it all for comedic effect, even when Jack’s head pops off his shoulders ala Headless Horseman.
3. The Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland, 2010)
When it comes to whimsical, there’s little fictional material out there that fits Tim Burton’s love of whimsy the way that Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland does. You get a real sense that Burton had fun designing Wonderland the way he did with Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Wonderland still looks like a fantasy world but feels like a psychedelic nightmare thanks to the mix of dark sets and bright colors in Burton’s take.
Tim Burton’s character design for the Mad Hatter is colorful, compared to the typically plain sketches for the other sketches we’ve seen earlier. Burton brought back Johnny Depp, one of his favorite actors to work with, to portray the Mad Hatter. The director gave him orange frizzy hair, a massive bow tie, and his signature top hat. The mix of bright oranges with darker blues and purples give viewers an idea of the Mad Hatter’s unstable, though never endangering, moods.
Speaking of favorite actors to collaborate with, among the many Tim Burton characters of the film is highly acclaimed actress Helena Bonham Carter who played the role of the visually striking Red Queen.
2. The Red Queen (Alice in Wonderland, 2010)
Clad in bright reds, deep blacks, and brilliant golds, the Red Queen cuts an imposing figure in the film. It probably has something to do with her massive head as well.
Played by Helena Bonham Carter, who also played Mrs. Lovett in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), the Red Queen is the ‘evil’ sister of the White Queen whom Burton humanizes as a misunderstood outcast, much like himself.
Her original concept art features only reds and whites but has the same Tudor style gown we see in the final product. It looks like an exaggerated version of Queen Elizabeth I who also had heart-shaped ginger hair, a thick frilled collar, and lead paint foundation.
1. Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands, 1990)
Most of the popular Tim Burton characters are often animated but of those that aren’t, Edward Scissorhands is among his best.
Played by Johnny Depp, because Burton really does have favorites, Edward Scissorhands is the main character of the Edward Scissorhands (1990) film. It’s an emotionally intimate film that harkens back to Burton’s own childhood in Burbank, California. The director often describes his own childhood as lonely and isolating especially since the introverted Burton was nothing like his father, a former minor league baseball player.
The cookie-cutter, pastel-colored houses of the film’s suburban setting highlight Edward’s un-belonging in the setting. He’s not welcome among the town’s inhabitants and he doesn’t feel like he belongs either, floundering like an alien in the nuances of social interaction.
The Tim Burton character says very little throughout the film, just a measly 169 words, as Depp and Burton both let his actions do the talking. His hands could easily hurt and kill but Edward uses them for creative ends, trimming topiaries into fun shapes and giving cute puppies a haircut.
It’s something that Burton himself likely relates to, as he remembers being seen as terrifying and odd for his love of horror films as a child.
Burton’s character concept for Edward Scissorhands was brought to life by award-winning costume designer Collen Atwood. The costume was difficult to translate from Tim Burton’s sketches given Edward’s dramatically angled and spindly silhouette that could give the Slenderman a run for his money. Add to that the challenge of creating the impractically long scissor hands and you can see why the finished product ended up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 2009 to 2010.
Burton-esque: A Visual Signature
Tim Burton characters and set design form a highly unique visual style that many moviegoers now associate with the famous director. That’s why it’s no shocker that many believe Coraline (2009) is a film that Burton himself had a hand in. Following the misconceptions that The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was directed by Burton, director Henry Selick stepped out of the more famous director and producer’s shadow with the 2009 release of Coraline.
There’s no doubt that the movie was well done, given its reviews but its scary wonderland behind a tiny door and the spider-like Other Mother gave audiences the impression of a style that’s now commonly known among film junkies as Burton-esque.
Another film that was noted for its eerie similarity to Tim Burton characters is the 2008 film Igor, the story of a hunchback who wants to be an evil scientist in his own right. While the titular Igor succeeds and even becomes president, fans speculated that someone working in the Igor team had to have worked for Burton. Though fairly enjoyable, the film never received the same acclaim that Coraline (2009) did and was instead seen as a shoddy copycat of the iconic style of Tim Burton’s characters and sets.
Want to know more about the artistic side of horror films? Take a peek at our list of Top 10 Classic Horror Movie Posters.